The family of famed teacher Jaime Escalante, 79, has announced that he passed away at 2:27 pm last Wednesday. The cause of death was coronary and respiratory failure, precipitated by cancer.
A native of La Paz, Bolivia, and the son of two elementary-school teachers, Escalante came to America in 1963 at age 33. Although he was already an accomplished and popular science and mathematics teacher in Bolivia, he spoke almost no English and had to return to school to become a certified teacher in California.
He worked at a series of jobs as he studied, from a restaurant to a computer company, and in 1974 attained his goal. Arriving at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, he encountered a culture of low expectations, gang activity, and administrative apathy.
His success in overcoming these odds and in enabling "unteachable" students to master advanced mathematics made him a national and international hero. The 1988 movie about his Garfield AP Calculus program, Stand and Deliver, remains one of the most popular and beloved films ever made about the teaching profession.
His career has been celebrated in a number of books, most notably Escalante: The Best Teacher in America (1989) by Washington Post writer Jay Mathews. He became a presence in classrooms throughout the US – and the world – through the PBS series FUTURES with Jaime Escalante. One of the most popular classroom programs in the history of public broadcasting, FUTURES combined examples of Escalante's teaching style with his purpose to help his students discover rewarding careers in math and science.
"Jaime exposed one of the most dangerous myths of our time – that inner city students can't be expected to perform at the highest levels," said Edward James Olmos, who played Escalante in Stand and Deliver. "Because of him, that destructive idea has been shattered forever. This is a legacy that changed American education, and I will work to ensure that it continues long into the future."
"Jaime's greatest gift not only to me but to anyone taught by him or who saw Stand and Deliver is that no matter who you are or where you came from, you can achieve anything," said actress Vanessa Marquez, who played a student in the film. "It is no surprise that after meeting him, I aced all of my math classes in college, and I have used what I learned from him for the past 23 years. He will always be a part of my life."
Escalante is survived by his wife, two sons, and six grandchildren.
"The best way to honor the life and work of this great man is to keep it going and I, along with others whose lives he touched, intend to do that," said Olmos.